The Future of ASEAN Centrality in the Asia-Pacific Regional Architecture

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As a ten-member regional bloc representing some six hundred million people, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is generally viewed as a successful experiment in regional conflict regulation and cooperation.[1] To achieve such positive results, ASEAN has undertaken a number of initiatives to strengthen relations amongst member states and between external powers. These initiatives include the provision of ASEAN-led multilateral platforms for security dialogue involving members from both governmental and non-governmental bodies.[2] Underlying many ­of these initiatives is an emphasis on “ASEAN centrality”—the notion of ASEAN’s leading role in the regional architecture—a principle that has framed the way ASEAN has approached its external relations, in particular with the major powers, to ensure that its interests are protected and the regional stability preserved.[3]

Notwithstanding ASEAN’s best efforts, such an approach has not always resulted in success, as evidenced by the slow progress of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the uncertainty over how the East Asia Summit (EAS) would evolve.[4] In 2012, the ASEAN community found itself in a crisis of sorts as it was unable to issue a joint communiqué following a heated political wrangling between the then Cambodian Chairperson and other ASEAN members over their South China Sea disputes involving China. While subsequent years witnessed comparatively better relations among ASEAN member states, there nonetheless exists substantial doubt concerning the extent to which ASEAN can continue to function as a cohesive community that is able to reconcile the pursuit of state interests with broader regional responsibilities, particularly when issues of sovereignty are at stake.[5]

As such, one may argue that the idea of a collective, united ASEAN that is able to speak with “one voice” is at best a useful political slogan. The “ASEAN way” of emphasizing ASEAN’s centrality is severely limited when it comes to critical flashpoints where member states are required to stand up for their own perceived interests vis-à-vis the major powers. In this respect, the ASEAN way represents a partial means for institutional negotiation, not a raison d’etre or ultimate objective to be maintained at all cost.

The vision of the establishment of an ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) by the end of 2015 is thus unlikely to be achieved as ongoing political differences, ethno-cultural diversities, and economic development remain obstacles to closer cooperation.[6],[7],[8] Rodolfo Severino, ASEAN’s Secretary General between 1998 and 2002, noted that the year 2015 should not be viewed as “a target year, in which ASEAN, its objectives, and the way it does things are suddenly transformed. Rather, it should be regarded as a benchmark or milestone for the measurement of progress toward regional economic integration.”[9] In light of this argument, an appraisal of ASEAN would recognize the internal and external factors that have limited ASEAN’s quest for regional (and international) influence, while alternatively leading one to the conclusion that ASEAN has already achieved more than it was expected to.

ASEAN Centrality and Major Power Relations

ASEAN’s vision of a successful political-security community hinges largely on the success of member states’ relations with the larger Asia-Pacific powers.[10] In this respect, the United States and China feature prominently in ASEAN’s external relations, which seek to institutionalize the role of both great powers and smaller states in regional security management.[11] To some extent, such an approach has allowed ASEAN to successfully negotiate the complex contours circumscribed by great-power competition in the region. Not only has the ASEAN approach to multilateralism brought great powers to the discussion table, it has also helped legitimize great power roles and offered ASEAN the opportunity to claim a small power “voice.”[12] The fact that the great powers were being reassured that membership (in the case of the ARF) would be relatively non-demanding, low-cost, and low-stakes further lends credence to the ASEAN-led regional architecture.[13]

In light of the United States’ much-publicized Asia-Pacific “pivot” or “rebalancing strategy,” the design of the ASEAN community has been called into question. The ASEAN community’s desire to remain “neutral”—while rhetorically plausible—may not be realistically tenable given heightened tensions between the major powers, not least of all a perceived power contestation between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.[14] This has created even greater cracks and fissures within ASEAN, most notably among those who have territorial disputes with China and those who do not.[15] In this respect, ASEAN’s enthusiasm for inclusiveness and consensus—which incidentally is its major selling point—has also hamstrung the group’s ability to act, especially in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). As scholar Ralf Emmers has observed, “[ASEAN] claimants are equally unwilling to make concessions with regard to their territorial claims and have failed to address the problem of sovereign jurisdiction. The absence of a consensus among the ASEAN states over the SCS also needs to be kept in mind. The members have differential relationships with the PRC and contrasting views on its potential threat…These sources of disunity have complicated the attainment of a collective stance and weakened ASEAN.”[16]

ASEAN’s cohesiveness and unity have also been subjected to scrutiny, particularly in the field of preventive diplomacy (PD), action taken to avoid the threat or use of armed force. ASEAN’s inability to move from confidence-building to PD has raised concerns over the long-term viability of the ARF as a forum.[17] As pointed out, the ARF—originally designed to be an informal platform for foreign policy dialogue—has now evolved into a highly inflexible forum, severely inhibiting the adoption of a preventive diplomacy agenda and actionable measures under the ARF framework.[18]

As such, a more crucial question that needs to be asked is what kinds of relations are being instituted among ASEAN states and how strong are they?[19] Evelyn Goh argues that the “unfinished and urgent task of [ASEAN’s] internal consolidation acts as an important constraint to ASEAN’s ability to play its brokerage role vis-à-vis the great powers and regional order in East Asia.”[20] Indeed, the greatest challenge for ASEAN is not establishing external relations with the major powers, but managing relations among ASEAN states themselves. ASEAN nations face conflicts that are often rooted in “historic and ethnic antagonisms” that show few signs of dissipating and “take on new meanings in contemporary nationalism.”[21] A case in point is seen in Indonesia’s 2014 decision to name one of its new navy frigates the KRI Usman Harun, after two former marines who carried out a bombing in Singapore during the 1960s. In response, Singapore decided that it would not allow the warship to call at its naval base and would not participate in military exercises with the warship. According to Singapore’s defense minister, the decision to name the ships after the two men had heightened suspicions and resentments on both sides, “setting back many decades of relationship building in defense ties.”[22]

ASEAN’s Multilateralism and International Diplomacy

The foundation of multilateralism is distinguished by three characteristics, namely, indivisibility, generalized principles of conduct, and diffused reciprocity.[23] In this case, all three properties are weakly represented in ASEAN. First, the interests of ASEAN states are not indivisible from each other; instead, ASEAN’s present fortunes are a result of member states’ willingness to align their fortunes with the rest of the world, and not just among fellow ASEAN members. Second, few (if any) generalized patterns of conduct can be found among these states; countries are free to conduct their international relations with relatively minimal regional considerations (beyond the usual ambiguity of ensuring “regional peace and stability”). Third, the history of intramural conflicts in Southeast Asia also casts aspersions concerning the extent of ASEAN states’ reciprocity toward one another and whether they expect “to benefit in the long run and over many issues, rather than every time on every issue.”[24] Indeed, as lamented by former Secretary General Rodolfo Severino, what is lacking in ASEAN is “the feeling of belonging, the conviction that members matter to one another and to the group, and the faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”[25]

Notwithstanding the “muddiness” of such a multilateralism strategy and the lack of regional coherence and solidarity displayed at times, the reality of international diplomacy suggests that ASEAN would still be very much part of the overall calculus within the Asia-Pacific region. The United States and China have found it expedient to have ASEAN provide the “places” and “spaces” where the security dilemmas that threaten the durability and effectiveness of their mutual hedging can be managed and hopefully mitigated.[26] Other regional powers, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea, are important U.S. allies and key trading partners of China. This has ensured that ASEAN and ASEAN-led consultative mechanisms retain their relevance in facilitating a cooperative and peaceful Sino-U.S. relationship.[27]

Indeed, ASEAN countries view cooperative security as one of the “pathways” to regional security—in particular, in terms of their relations with external powers.[28] In recent years, it has become common rhetoric among ASEAN policymakers that they would not like to choose between the United States and China. To follow through on this rhetoric, ASEAN pursues a strategy of “double-binding,” which involves a conscious effort to enmesh both Washington and Beijing in regional institutions.[29] This is workable so long as Sino-U.S. relations remain on an even keel and neither country elects to extend their Asia-Pacific sphere of influence. But this cannot be assumed, as relations between China and the United States have evolved into a pattern of mutual strategic hedging, which allows “[the two countries] each to maintain its extensive and mutually beneficial economic ties with each other and with the rest of Asia while addressing uncertainty and growing security concerns about the other.”[30] ASEAN’s preference of not having to choose will be tested in the coming years, especially if Sino-U.S. tensions escalate.

The Future of ASEAN Centrality

Given the tendency of diplomats and policymakers to sometimes exaggerate the usefulness of their policy prescriptions, one needs to be careful not to overstate the extent of the role that ASEAN plays within the wider regional political community. This is particularly so if ASEAN member states, in trying to avoid being drawn into big power rivalries, end up adopting an inward-looking, ASEAN-centric mentality in their global interactions. ASEAN’s ascension to global prominence and relevance came about as a result of ASEAN nations’ willingness to open themselves up to the wider global community of nations. In other words, ASEAN centrality was made possible because individual ASEAN states chose to align their fortunes with the rest of the world, and in doing so, brought about the collective success of the ASEAN community.[31] Given this experience, ASEAN will have to carefully consider the extent of its centrality and whether it has overemphasized this aspect to the detriment of its own collective unity.

Clearly ASEAN no longer lives under the shadow of the Cold War, and it is incumbent on ASEAN member states to reflect on whether the “ASEAN way” (however it may be defined) is useful and relevant to twenty-first century global politics that have witnessed a plurality of international actors. Perhaps it may be time for ASEAN to de-emphasize its centrality for the reason that such a centrality may be a tool for diplomatic speech that may not reflect political realities. This is not to suggest that the concept of an ASEAN community is no longer relevant; rather, ASEAN policymakers must recognize its limitations and refrain from embellishing what an ideal ASEAN should be like.

Practically speaking, this means that ASEAN should not insist that it has to be in the driver’s seat in leading regional initiatives. Instead, it should adopt a more modest approach, cooperating in areas where it has the capability to do so, such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia’s participation in counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) threat. Furthermore, the role of external powers in shaping the regional architecture needs to be acknowledged, as ASEAN’s success could not have come about without the legitimacy conferred upon it by other major powers. Paradoxically, ASEAN’s willingness to cede control of its centrality in order to gain international credibility ultimately enables it to regain its centrality on a more secure and longer-lasting foundation.

About the Author

Benjamin Ho is an associate research fellow at the Regional Security Architecture Programme of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), which is part of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. He researches security multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific region with a focus on regional institutions and fora, Chinese foreign policy and ethical philosophy, and national security.

[1] Amitav Acharya, Regionalism and Multilateralism: Essays on Cooperative Security in the Asia-Pacific (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2002).

[2] The “alphabet soup” of ASEAN-led security related initiatives includes the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Council of Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Defence Minister Meetings (ADMM), and the Track II Network of ASEAN Defence and Security Institutions (NADI).

[3] Ralf Emmers, ed., ASEAN and the Institutionalization of East Asia (London: Routledge, 2012).

[4] See Bates Gill and Michael J. Green, eds., Cooperation, Competition, and the Search For Community: Asia’s New Multilateralism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 7-13.

[5] See Ralf Emmers and Tan See Seng, The ASEAN Regional Forum and Preventive Diplomacy: Built to Fail? Asian Security, Volume 7:1 (2011), 44-60; Alica Ba, “ASEAN centrality imperiled?” in Ralf Emmers ed., ASEAN and the Institutionalization of East Asia, 122-124; Benjamin Ho, Bhubhindar Singh and Sarah Teo, “Malaysia’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2015: Perspectives and Prospects,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 298, January 13, 2015 (Honolulu, HI: East-West Center, 2015); Benjamin Ho, ASEAN Centrality in a Rising Asia, RSIS Working Paper No.249 (RSIS: Singapore, 2012).

[6] Christopher B. Roberts, “State Weakness and Political Values: Ramifications for the ASEAN Community” in Ralf Emmers, ed., ASEAN and the Institutionalization of East Asia, 11-27.

[7] Thanawat Pimoljinda, “Ethno-Cultural Diversity: A Challenging Parameter for ASEAN Regional Integration” (paper presented at the 2013 International Conference on Public Management, May 30-31, 2013).

[8] Sanchita Basu Das, ed., ASEAN Economic Community Scorecard: Performance and Perception (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013); Ji Xianbai, “Why the ASEAN Economic Community will Struggle,” The Diplomat, September 24, 2014. (Accessed on February 6, 2015).

[9] Rodolfo C. Severino, “Look Beyond 2015,” The Straits Times, January 5, 2014.

[10] William T. Tow, Great Powers and Multilateralism: The Politics of Security Architectures in Southeast Asia, in Ralf Emmers, ed., ASEAN and the Institutionalization of East Asia, 155-168.

[11] See Evelyn Goh, “Institutions and the Great Power Bargain in East Asia: ASEAN’s Limited Brokerage Role,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific (2011), 11 (3): 373-401.

[12] Evelyn Goh, “Institutions and the Great Power Bargain in East Asia: ASEAN’s Limited Brokerage Role,” 378-383.

[13] Evelyn Goh, “The ASEAN Regional Forum in United States East Asian Strategy,” Pacific Review, 17(1), (2004): 47-69.

[14] Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).

[15] Tan Seng Chye, “Changing Global Landscape and Enhanced U.S. Engagement with Asia—Challenges and Emerging Trends,” Asia-Pacific Review, 19 (1), (2012): 122.

[16] Ralf Emmers, Geopolitics and Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).

[17] Ralf Emmers and See Seng Tan, The ASEAN Regional Forum and Preventive Diplomacy: Built to Fail? Asian Security, Volume 7, Issue 1 (2011): 44-60.

[18] Ibid.

[19] John Gerard Ruggie, ed., Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form (NY: Columbia University Press, 1993), 6.

[20] Evelyn Goh, “Institutions and the Great Power Bargain in East Asia: ASEAN’s Limited Brokerage Role,” 385.

[21] Donald E. Weatherbee, International Relations in Southeast Asia: The Struggle for Autonomy (Oxford: Rowman & Litlefield, 2005), 17.

[22] Jermyn Chow, Indonesian Warship Usman Harun Disallowed from Calling at Singapore Ports and Naval Bases, The Straits Times, February 18, 2014.

[23] James A. Caporaso, “International Relations Theory and Multilateralism: The Search for Foundations,” in John Gerard Ruggie, ed., Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form, 53.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Rodolfo Severino, “A Sense of Community for Southeast Asia” in Hiro Katsumata and See Seng Tan, eds., People’s ASEAN and Governments’ ASEAN. RSIS Monograph 11 (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2007), 17-25.

[26] See Seng Tan, “Engaging China and the United States: Perils and Prospects for ASEAN Diplomacy in the Age of Rebalancing,” in Li Mingjiang and Kalyan M. Kemburi, eds., New Dynamics in U.S.-China Relations: Contending for the Asia-Pacific, (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2014), 67–84.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hiro Katsumata, ASEAN’s Cooperative Security Enterprise: Norms and Interests in the ASEAN Regional Forum (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 161.

[29] Amitav Acharya, “Will Asia’s Past Be Its Future?” International Security 28 (3), (2003): 149-164.

[30] Evan S. Medeiros, “Strategic Hedging and the Future of Asia-Pacific Stability,” The Washington Quarterly 29:1, Winter 2005-06, 145-67, see 146.

[31] Benjamin Ho, “ASEAN Centrality in a Rising Asia,” The Journal of Defence and Security, Vol.4, 2 (2013): 143-160, see 153.


Edited by Dira Fabrian, Editor for Articles and Andrew Cheong, Former Managing Editor.


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